March 06, 2008

Research by Case Western Reserve University professors, VA collaborators published in Science

Report in the world's leading journal for original scientific research features polymer research that can change hard plastic to soft and vice versa in a matter of seconds when exposed to liquid

Picture of the Case/VA team. From left: Jeffrey R. Capadona, Stuart J. Rowan, Christoph Weder, Dustin J. Tyler. Not in the picture: Kadhiravan Shanmuganathan.

The movie illustrates the mechanical properties of one of the new nanocomposites developed by the Case/VA team. The dry material in the shape of a cortical electrode can readily be inserted into simulated cortical tissue. After placing the object into artificial cerebral spinal fluid (37 °C for ~15min) it no longer penetrates the gel, but is bent upon insertion attempts, reflecting that its stiffness was substantially reduced.
Users may need to install Windows Media Player to view the video on this page, or QuickTime to view the file in .mov format.

An interdisciplinary team of researchers from the departments of macromolecular science and engineering and biomedical engineering at the Case School of Engineering and the Louis Stokes Cleveland Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center has published ground-breaking work on a new type of polymer that displays chemoresponsive mechanic adaptability—meaning the polymer can change from hard to soft plastic and vice versa in seconds when exposed to liquid—in the March 7, 2008, issue of Science, one of the world's most prestigious scholarly journals covering all aspects of science.

Jeffrey R. Capadona, associate investigator at the VA's Advanced Platform Technology (APT) Center, graduate student Kadhiravan Shanmuganathan, and Case Western Reserve University professors and APT investigators Dustin Tyler (biomedical engineering), Stuart Rowan (macromolecular science) and Christoph Weder (macromolecular science) have unveiled a radically new approach for developing polymer nanocomposites which alter their mechanical properties when exposed to certain chemical stimuli.

"We can engineer these new polymers to change their mechanical properties—in particular stiffness and strength—in a programmed fashion when exposed to a specific chemical," says Weder, one of the senior authors of the paper.

"The materials on which we reported in Science were designed to change from a hard plastic—think of a CD case—to a soft rubber when brought in contact with water," adds Rowan, who has been Weder's partner on the project for almost six years.

"Our new materials were tailored to respond specifically to water and to exhibit minimal swelling, so they don't soak up water like a sponge," saud Shanmuganathan.

sea cucumber
Sea cucumbers inspired the design of chemo-responsive nanocomposite with adaptive mechanical properties. Picture courtesy F. Carpenter.

In their new approach, the team used a biomimetic approach—or mimicking biology—copying nature's design found in the skin of sea cucumbers.

"These creatures can reversibly and quickly change the stiffness of their skin. Normally it is very soft, but, for example, in response to a threat, the animal can activate its 'body armor' by hardening its skin," explains Capadona, who has a sea cucumber in his aquarium. Marine biologists have shown in earlier studies that the switching effect in the biological tissue is derived from a distinct nanocomposite structure in which highly rigid collagen nanofibers are embedded in a soft connective tissue. The stiffness is mediated by specific chemicals that are secreted by the animal's nervous system and which control the interactions among the collagen nanofibers. When connected, the nanofibers form a reinforcing network which increases the overall stiffness of the material considerably, when compared to the disconnected (soft) state.

Scanning electron microscopy image of a bio-inspired chemo-responsive nanocomposite with adaptive mechanical properties. Picture courtesy Case Western Reserve University.

Building on their recent success on the fabrication of artificial polymer nanocomposites containing rigid cellulose nanofibers, which earned them the December 2007 cover of Nature Nanotechnology, the team mimicked the architecture nature 'designed' for the sea cucumbers and created artificial materials that display similar mechanical morphing characteristics.

The Case Western Reserve/VA team is specifically interested in using such dynamic mechanical materials in biomedical applications, for example as adaptive substrates for intracortical microelectrodes. These devices are being developed as part of 'artificial nervous systems' that have the potential to help treat patients that suffer from medical conditions such as Parkinson's disease, stroke or spinal cord injuries, i.e., disorders in which the body's interface to the brain is compromised. A problem observed in experimental studies is that the quality of the brain signals recorded by such microelectrodes usually degrades within a few months after implantation, making chronic applications challenging. One hypothesis for this failure is that the high stiffness of these electrodes, which is required for their insertion, causes damage to the surrounding, very soft brain tissue over time. "We believe that electrodes that use mechanically adaptive polymer as substrate could alleviate this problem" explains Dustin Tyler, who specializes in neural interfacing and functional electrical stimulation. The development and testing of experimental microelectrodes that involve the new adaptive materials is currently underway. "That's why we designed our first materials to respond to water" explains Weder. "This allows the rigid electrodes to become soft when implanted into the water-rich brain" he adds.

The Department of Veterans Affairs and the VA Rehabilitation R&D Center of Excellence in Advanced Platform Technology (APT) played an important role in uniting Weder and Rowan with Capadona and Tyler, to conduct research in the area of adaptive nanocomposite materials, which are now fabricated by the new process. The APT center is a cohesive intellectual community that offers its investigators the opportunity to meet regularly, have discussions within and outside of their fields, participate in list-servs, and attend educational and scientific conferences. It allows access to state-of-the-art facilities including MEMS design and fabrication, mixed signal and wireless communication laboratories, telemetry laboratories, support staff and other technical and clinical resources.

Science is the world's leading multidisciplinary, peer-reviewed journal that publishes significant original scientific research, plus reviews and analyses of current research and science policy.

About research at the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center

The Cleveland VA Medical Center has several large, well-funded research and development programs in:

  • biomedical research
  • health services research
  • clinical and cooperative studies
  • rehabilitation research

There are also two VA-funded centers of excellence:

  • Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) Center
  • Advance Platform Technology Center

For more information contact Laura M. Massie, 216.368.4442.

Posted by: Heidi Cool, March 6, 2008 02:28 PM | News Topics: Case School of Engineering, Collaborations/Partnerships, Faculty, HeadlinesMain, Provost Initiatives, Research, Science, Technology

Case Western Reserve University is committed to the free exchange of ideas, reasoned debate and intellectual dialogue. Speakers and scholars with a diversity of opinions and perspectives are invited to the campus to provide the community with important points of view, some of which may be deemed controversial. The views and opinions of those invited to speak on the campus do not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration or any other segment of the university community.